Presented on Saturday, October 5, 2019 in the Barn at Quarry Farm as part of the "Mark Twain and Nature" Quarry Farm Symposium.
This talk examines Mark Twain's unfinished manuscript 3,000 Years among the Microbes, written in Dublin, New Hampshire in 1905. More precisely, I provide a historical backdrop for the manuscript by putting it in dialogue with two major shifts in medical thought at the end of the nineteenth century: (1) the rise of microbiology, introducing a new discourse for articulating the relationship of bacteria and viruses to infectious disease; and (2) the emergence of an international psychiatric discourse revolving around mysophobia, meaning a dread of filth and contamination. Written from the perspective of a cholera germ named Huck who has infected a tramp named Blitzowski, 3,000 Years meditates on both discourses, exploring microbiology's ramifications for human understanding of life, agency, and subjectivity, while also pursuing a mysophobic aesthetic: a state of readerly repugnance generated by the landscape of infection and bodily functions of Huck and his microbe friends inhabit. I use 3,000 Years to argue that we cannot understand the evolution of mysophobia (as a diagnosis and aesthetic) without also understanding its historical relationship to the triumph of medical microbiology.
Don James McLaughlin is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century American Literature in the English Department at the University of Tulsa and the 2018-2019 Hench Post-dissertation Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. He is writing a book on the history of phobia as a medical diagnosis, political metaphor, and aesthetic sensation in American liberalism. His writing has appeared in American Literature, the New Republic, and J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.